Thursday, January 9, 2014

STRADDIE ABLAZE 2014.

STRADDIE – A DISASTER IN THE MAKING

 Photograph by Darryl Haines.

North Stradbroke Island, or Straddie as it’s mostly called is a long, narrow island off the coast of south east Queensland.  It has no bridge connection to the mainland and can only be reached by fast water taxi, or a 45 minute vehicle barge ferry from Cleveland.

The island, home to a large population of native fauna, has been inhabited by its traditional owners for many centuries.   Most of the island is dense national park with a scattering of sand mines.  The island itself is sparsely populated with just three townships, Amity Point, Point Lookout and the slightly larger bayside arrival town of Dunwich.  Each of the towns has its own Rural Fire Brigade comprising local volunteers familiar with the island’s terrain. 

Straddie is blessed with a pristine beauty stretching from a small rain forest tucked away at its southernmost tip to a lush hidden fern valley at the north; bush and forest is interspersed by the mysterious and deep Blue Lake in the island’s middle, and the tea tree tinted serenity of Brown Lake across from the pine forest. Surrounding all this beauty and diversity are mile upon mile of sandy ocean beach and bay.  It is no wonder the island is so popular with holiday makers.

The Island’s normal population fluctuates around the 2000 or so mark, but come the holiday season and it swells into the 40,000 mark or even more, mostly campers who on arrival quickly disperse to become absorbed into the camping sites around the three townships and along the ocean side to the southern tip at Jumpinpin.  The campers come to fish and to surf and many are second and even third generation visitors…such is the island’s magnetic charm.

 



THE FIRE STARTS

The island is no stranger to bush fires mostly they flare up in largely inaccessible bush and are monitored until they run their course, as was the case on December 3rd when fire crews attended a bushfire burning about 2 km south of the Yarraman Mine.  The fire, burning within containment lines posed no threat to property and three days later was extinguished with the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) announcing the reopening of two bush thoroughfares, Tripod and Fishermans tracks: Apparently though, remnants of this fire lay hidden, smouldering away in isolated scrub.

Fast forward now to 29th December as storms target the southern part of the island and a lightning strike sets off a fire in bushland around the vicinity of Blue Lake. QFES advises there is currently no threat to people or homes and that protection lines have been established around the nearby electrical substation.  As a precaution campers at Main Beach to the south of the island are advised of the situation by rangers and told to prepare contingency plans...in case!

Monday 30th December: The lightning strike fire in the vicinity of Blue Lake and the 18 mile Swamp continues to grow in intensity as firefighters battle the blaze, but still the fire is in a remote part of the bush and presents no immediate threat to property or life.  Nearby campers are kept informed and advised Tazi Road has been closed and the only beach access available is further north at the Pt Lookout exit.

As campers and residents alike do at this time of year preparations are well in hand for celebrating the New Year.
Tuesday 31st December – New Years Eve: the situation is changing rapidly; burning embers have spiralled skyward to start afresh in distant parts of the bush; the embers can and do project anything up to 4km.  The fires have escalated sending thick smoke across Brisbane’s northern suburbs.  Urgent plans are now put in place to evacuate holidaymakers from Main Beach.

CAMPERS EVACUATED

The Tazi Road crosses the waist of the island joining Dunwich in the west to the causeway or ocean beach exit on the east coast. Built in the early days of mining the name is coined from the two giant dredges that once worked mine sites along the 18 mile swamp, the Titania and the Zirconia. There is some confusion for visitors, the Tazi has been renamed the Alfred Martin Way deservedly honouring an Elder of earlier days prominent in the affairs of the Island. Both names are now being quoted.


Wednesday 1st January 2014 – New Year:  The Tazi Road is re-opened and a steady stream of vehicles begin the long trek from the southern camp sites to the Causeway exit.  Their progress is marked by police and ranger escort the fire and exodus now gaining exposure on television news.



In Dunwich the community hall, an historical building dating back to earlier days in the 19th and 20th Century when the town was the site of the Dunwich Benevolent Society Asylum for the Aged, is preparing for the influx of 900 and more campers. Local Red Cross volunteers set up refreshment booths with tea, coffee and food. All evacuees will be registered and checked against camp site booking details.  No one will be left behind. Additional barges are arriving at the ferry terminal nearby to aid the evacuation.

Camping sites in the three towns Dunwich, Amity Point and Point Lookout are all fully booked, in other words there is no more room at the inn and for the hapless campers now streaming into Dunwich their summer holiday is over:  For some it had barely even begun.


Thursday 2nd January 2014:  The fire is gaining momentum and has already destroyed three of the abandoned camp sites and damaged power lines, effectively cutting supply to all of Straddie.  We, my reluctant traveller and me, like many other island residents who hibernate in reclusion when the holiday influx reaches huge proportions are largely unaware of the unfolding drama.  It takes a while even to realise we’ve lost power. The blackout lasts 18 hours.

Friday 3rd January 2014: The smoke is becoming more noticeable and beginning to drift over mainland Brisbane.  Two more spot fires flare up, one threatening the radar tower near the Tazi/Alfred Martin Way the other on the southern bayside part of the island near the Canaipa Passage.  The word gets round that a community meeting has been called primarily to keep Dunwich residents up to date on the fire’s development.

These briefings will become daily affairs. The islands over extended local police have been augmented with mainland specialists in control and communication: The Redlands City Council have put their staff on site helping smooth the way for the influx of machinery and manpower. Energex assure they are doing all they can to repair power lines. We become aware of the wide scope of the fires, three of them now, the small long smouldering fire south of Yarraman has sprung into life with a vengeance, but so far the mood is upbeat, containment lines strong, no talk of evacuation.

Saturday 4th January 2014: We wake to a hot sweltering day with high temperatures in the 40’s forecast.  A wind change is expected in the afternoon and the situation is beginning to look more urgent. Heavy smoke and fumes are becoming evident.  Extra fire fighting crews and State Emergency Service personnel begin to arrive from the mainland along with helicopters specially equipped to water bomb the flames.

Power is suddenly lost in all three towns for the second time and though we don’t know it this blackout will last another 18 hours.   Along with many other neighbours we have our own emergency generator, but ours hasn’t been used for a number of years and fails to crank up.  Luckily we have a gas stove to cook on and a handy stash of candles. 




Energex struggling to restore power and recognizing the enormity of the unfolding disaster has begun shipping in the first of a number of huge emergency generators. These will be placed in strategic positions, firstly to provide power to Moopi, the hospital for the aged, and then to the central business area to ensure supply of essential foods, and then eventually to link private homes. Other generators will be deployed to both Amity and the Point.  We’re aware of our freezer full of recently caught fish and hope it survives the passing hours.







Firefighters struggle to establish containment lines around the island’s tiny airfield; campers in the popular but difficult to access Blakesly Slip on the western bayside are ordered to leave as flames push north.  The expected wind change has arrived putting Dunwich clearly in the fire’s path.  Now backburning begins in earnest and a huge pall of smoke billows above the island, the smoke drifting across to the mainland.

WATCH AND ACT
Continuing 4th January 2014:  This Saturday is proving to be a long, long day: The smell of burning timber is all pervasive and the smoke pall is getting thicker.  We’ve experienced major fires before and I know the emergency drill well, clear any debris from the gutters, lay out the garden hoses and douse down the surrounding vegetation, pack the car with a supply of clothes and any items we need to save…photos, personal papers, the odd treasure or two. I don’t pile in as much as I first did some 15 or so years ago when I later wondered what on earth I was thinking as I crammed in paintings and books and doubtful memorabilia.  Now I shoved in just the basics, undies, change of clothes, medicines, essential paper records, a couple of pillows and towels.




Visibility across the bay to the mainland is hampered by the billowing smoke. Not again I thought, is Dunwich facing yet another major disaster, are the fires creeping closer to home?

Just a short time later S.E.S. (State Emergency Services) volunteers in their distinctive yellow uniforms begin moving door to door.   In previous years the messengers had been police men and women and the message had been in plain English.  Evacuate. Lock up and go.

Both Illawong and Rainbow Crescent, the Dickson Way and the Seven Mile SBend were in the line of fire despite extensive back burning.  Now the SES people were handing out brochures and mouthing the words Watch and Act.  In this new age of legal speak the message had been softened; householders were now given the choice to watch closely the changing situation and act as they saw fit.  Stay and defend your property, or leave now and ensure you live to tell the tale.



The Reluctant Traveller I know will not leave our home of 34 years. In all the three previous fires we’ve experienced he has remained behind:  Now will be no different.  But again I pack up the car in between fielding phone calls from friends in the township below, all offering sanctuary and a bed. If we’re forcibly removed we will take up the offer.

 We’ve been care taking three chooks for friends holidaying overseas and I make a dash down town to fill up their water and feed tins. The smoke is heavy and an eerie silence is shattered by the wail of sirens and the constant whine of helicopter rotors landing and taking off from the old high school grounds just below us.

Driving the Tazi Road back up the hill to home I pass through the road blocks; access will soon be prevented and anyone leaving Rainbow or Illawong Crescents will no longer be allowed to return.  Residents in the smaller hamlet of Myora on the road to Pt Lookout have been evacuated.  The secondary fire in the middle of the island has broken through containment lines and now threatening homes and businesses to the north.



This news sparks an uneasy feeling; we’ve seen fires hovering in this direction in years past.  The winding Rainbow Crescent is perched above Dunwich township, above us separated by thick bush is Illawong Crescent, behind Illawong is the perched Brown Lake with golf club and radar tower beyond them.  When winds change direction this entire section becomes very volatile.

Along with our neighbours we now realise we have fire to the south of us and to the east.  For the time being though the threat is greater from the south.


Looking south from Dunwich

Sunday 5th January 2014:  The pall of smoke is even thicker, the heat of this hot summer day dictating the need for a cooling breeze and open windows.  Neighbours who like us have opted to stay, pop by, friends from Dunwich below us arrive, we sit in the relatively cool shade at the front of our house.  Conversation is drowned by the noise of helicopter blades and engines.  A few tinnies are opened, we still have ice and an esky; it’s almost like a party, an ordinary day of rest.  But this one is marred by constant movement of fire trucks up and down the street, their destination the water tower just a few doors away, the water supply for all of Dunwich.

Beyond the water tower is bush and dirt tracks; more fodder for a hungry fire. 

 When our friends drive back down to Dunwich the entrance to Rainbow is blocked off.  We can still leave but we will not be allowed back in.   I choose to stay with the Reluctant Traveller.  We have no power and no generator but we do have a gas stove.  Smoke is blanketing suburban Brisbane and friends over there phone through the night checking to see how the island is faring.

The wind changes pushing the southern fires north closer to Dunwich, then suddenly a fire near Myora, a few miles north of Dunwich breaks container lines and the residents of this small settlement are evacuated back to Dunwich.



Sunday 5th January 2014:  The Myora fire is contained with no loss of property and residents are allowed home. (In all our friends in Myora will survive three such moves.) The northerly is expected to freshen and now the defence of Dunwich is accelerated with frantic back burning to create a buffer zone to the east.

The firies both our local teams and the mainland crews are mounting day and night surveillance and back burning.  Temperatures are high and their fire fighting uniforms are thick and cumbersome, we are all aware of the job they are doing and say a private prayer for their safety.  In the back of everyone’s mind is the tragedy of the Victorian fires, a dark thought we avoid sharing.

Down in the community hall the auxiliary Red Cross team is handing out refreshment.  In the Minjerriba Respite Centre their air-conditioning is running nonstop courtesy of the emergency generators from Energex and inside 50 or so of our senior citizens, especially those with breathing problems, are sheltering.  

That night, without power we sit a while in the darkness jumping up every now and then to check the red glows growing larger to both the south and the east of us.  The smoke is thick and everything is permeated with the smell.  The wind is blowing and we know the firies are doing their best to establish that protective back burn.  The helicopter rotors are silent, their amazing dare devil pilots will resume their water bombing at first light.


Straddie skyline alight - viewed from Moreton Bay.

I sleep in my clothes, fitfully, stirring every few moments to listen to the eerie quiet of the night, the stirring of wind through the trees.  Beside me the Reluctant Traveller is wide awake too.  In between times we each creep out of bed to stand outside in the street, trying to judge if the red glow has widened, if the flames have leapt over the hills. Neither one of us acknowledges the other is awake.  There are anxious moments best left in silence.

Around midnight the power suddenly flashes on, we reconnect the frig and mouth a quiet thank you to the power people who have worked so tirelessly to keep the island going.

Monday 6th January 2014:  Storms are forecast and we hopefully watch the horizon as the sky darkens.  A series of intense storm cells accompanied by wind gusts reaching 90km/h wreak havoc on the mainland but bring a welcome dumping of rain to Straddie.  We listen to the rain falling through the night and imagine the flames retreating. 50-60 mm of rain falls in a relatively short time but authorities warn that is a help but the island isn’t out of the woods yet.

The fickle winds push first from the north and then turn into howling gales from the south.  The fires around Brown Lake re-intensify and again we’re faced with thick smoke and the never ending take off and landing of helicopters.  But this turns out to be a mere hiccup and we sense an end is in sight.

Tuesday 7th January 2014: The wind has changed, this time favourably, the fires are still burning confined now to the bush, but Dunwich has survived…yet again.

The clearing storms of Monday photographed from Pt Lookout.

***


A LESSON TO KEEP IN MIND

This photograph of a koala was taken by Elliot Birkbeck and included in his blog series on Straddie.  In the aftermath of these disastrous fires the likely fate of this beautiful creature is too terrible to contemplate.



The danger to the townships has passed but the fires on Straddie will linger for a few weeks yet. It is estimated that 60% of the island’s bush land has been burnt and destroyed.  It will take a long time for the trees and scrub to re-establish.  The loss of wild life will be almost impossible to put into numbers but we do know the toll will be high. 

University of Queensland wildlife ecologist Dr Greg Baxter in a news report today says the island’s population of koalas, gliders, native rats, goannas, ants, snakes, lizards and birds of prey had been ravaged by the current bushfire and would take two decades to recover. It is a sobering thought.  Dr Baxter added that another severe fire on Straddie within five years would see some animal species vanish from the island.
In this instance the fires were not the result of human negligence.  Nevertheless residents and visitors alike must take this recent event as a warning to be ever vigilant when lighting a camp fire, extinguishing a cigarette.   From small wisps of smouldering ash huge fires erupt.  Next time we may not be as lucky, next time we might lose both property and human lives… and could see the effective destruction of Stradbroke’s wild life population.

Along with fellow residents of North Stradbroke Island I am extremely grateful to members of our Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade, to the many members of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, to the numerous men and women volunteers from the State Emergency Services, to our local Policemen and to the extra police personnel from the mainland, to the Queensland Ambulance Service and to the staff of our own local Marie Rose Medical Centre, to the amazing workers at the Minjerriba Respite Centre, to the caring staff at the Nareeba Moopi Moopi Pa Hospice for the Aged, to the Ladies of Straddie’s Red Cross auxiliary service, to the staff of the Redlands City Council, to National Park Rangers, to Straddie Ferries and a huge thank you to Energex, without their emergency generators the Reluctant Traveller and I along with the entire island would have been kept in the dark for the entire duration.

And of course to  friends and relations, both on the island, mainland and overseas who gave comfort and sympathy to those on the Island.

If I have misrepresented or not given due acknowledgement on an event, organisation or instance in the life of this fire the fault is entirely my own and I do apologize.  

*

Robyn Mortimer January 2014.